The Roots of Progress

2018 in review

2018 was the second year of Roots of Progress. In 2017 I read twelve books for this project; this year I read twelve more.

Topping my list again this year is author Steven Pinker, with his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. The theme of this book is that reason, science and “humanism”—which Pinker identifies as the legacy of the Enlightenment—have been responsible for tremendous progress in all aspects of life. This theme, of course, is the motivation for this blog, so it was deeply gratifying to see a well-researched and well-argued tome on it. Pinker demonstrates that this progress happened, and elucidates the root causes of why; this blog is my attempt to work out how: the actual steps and key discoveries and inventions that led to the amazing charts in his book. I summarized the book in this post.

On a personal note, in 2018 I started a new job at a logistics company, so it’s no surprise that almost half the books I read this year were related to shipping, trade, or transportation. Starting with the modern era, I read The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson; and Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, by Rose George. I enjoyed both. The Box tells the story of how the world of shipping—and, eventually, the entire global supply chain—was transformed by the adoption of standard containers and systems for moving and tracking them. The container ultimately lowered shipping prices by orders of magnitude, contributing enormously to globalization. Ninety Percent was less informative about how shipping actually works, but painted a compelling picture of life at sea for the merchant marine.

I then went back in time to learn about the origins of trade and ocean navigation—the stories are intertwined, because most trade was (and still is) by ocean, and because trade was the motivation for the Age of Discovery. I started with A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein, which was dense but informative, such as in this key passage on the economics of travel:

Water transport is by its nature cheaper and more efficient than land carriage. A draft horse can carry about two hundred pounds on its back. With the help of a wagon and a good road, it can pull four thousand pounds. With the same energy expenditure, the same animal can draw as many as sixty thousand pounds along a canal towpath, a load that could be managed by small ancient sailing ships.

To learn more about ocean travel, I read Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel; followed by Sextant: A Young Man’s Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, by David Barrie. What I learned there was summarized in my post on marine navigation.

Closely related to the story of trade is the story of finance. Another book I read this year was Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible, by William Goetzmann. One thing I learned from this book and from Splendid Exchange is that merchant voyages were the main object of financing for most of history. They were long-term (months or years, depending on the distance), risky (many ships never returned), and required a lot of capital up front (to pay for goods to trade, not to mention the ship, provisions and crew), but had a potential for a very high payoff (30x or more, as I recall). I mentioned a few more lessons in my post “The Time Machine”.

In addition, I read two books on the story of plastic. I started with Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, but was disappointed with its lack of historical progression and its lack of balance in discussing benefits vs. risks of plastic. So I grabbed another book, Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, by Stephen Fenichell, which was better. I still don’t understand plastic well enough to summarize it as I’ve done for concrete or textiles, but it is a true wonder material that deserves much more attention—and admiration—than it’s gotten.

Rounding out the year are three more books on a grab-bag of topics, none of which I’ve been able to blog about yet. Energy: A Human History, by Richard Rhodes, was a good overview of the story of energy. Miracle Cure, by William Rosen told the story of antibiotics, leaving me hungry for more about the history of medicine. (Rosen also wrote another book I enjoyed last year, The Most Powerful Idea in the World.) And for breadth, Napoleon’s Buttons, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, covered a variety of topics from spices to The Pill to DDT.

In 2018 I did more than read books. I also started learning with my hands by trying out some of the crafts I’ve been reading about, including spinning, weaving, and blacksmithing. (I got really tempted to attend a “primitive skills” conference like Rabbitstick, but didn’t have time this year.)

For this blog, I wrote 17 posts (including this one). This was half as many as in 2018, but on average they were more than twice as long, as I’ve been doing fewer short notes and more comprehensive summaries, such as my posts on concrete, textiles, or marine navigation. I’d like to continue to do these, although maybe I’ll give myself permission to write more short and non-comprehensive notes as well, just to keep up the frequency.

I also added a bibliography to this blog, which I’ll continue to update as I read and blog about more books.

In 2019 and beyond, I’m interested in reading more about energy (I’ve already started on Empires of Light), steel, locomotives, the internal combustion engine, mass manufacturing, and the chemical industry. I also need to get into agriculture, which I’ve read almost nothing about.

I think I’m about halfway through reading enough books to get a basic overview of the story of technological progress. So in a year or two, depending on my reading pace, I should be able to write the outline of the whole story, although I bet at that point I will still have more questions than answers.

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